Sunday, October 30, 2011

Prayer for a Lost Boy

Last night, I spent some time on the phone with a dear and sweet friend, a woman I first met in grad school. It wasn't a conversation I ever expected to have with her (or really, with anybody), and with her permission, and an aching heart of my own, I'm sharing some of her story.

You see, the reason we were on the phone is that she knows I can type insanely fast, and she needed someone who could do that so that she could tell me the prayers and the homily (sermon) she's going to deliver at a memorial service for her 13-year-old nephew on Sunday evening. That's sad enough - that a 13-year-old boy should die. But this boy - his name is Jonathan - died because of a game. A GAME.

It's called the "choking game." And there are all kinds of videos available that talk about the consequences of playing this game. Jonathan's parents discovered some time ago that he'd learned about this game, and as you might expect, they read him the riot act and explained why it was not a game at all. If you're not familiar with it, another name for it is 'suffocation roulette.'

His parents removed anything they could from their home that might entice him to try this game again, but that wasn't enough. Jonathan played the choking game last week. His mother found him, too late, and this week, his parents are burying their beautiful boy.

She spoke, full of pain and courage, and I typed.  And in part, her homily says, "It is not so bad when death comes naturally and at the end of a long and full life, but when it comes at the age of 13, when a little boy’s story is scarcely halfway through, and brings what could have been a good and bright light to a sudden blowing-out, when it takes away a mother and father’s promises and hopes for their beloved son, bringing all their dreams to an abrupt, painful, and tragic end, when brothers and sisters realize that tomorrow holds no play, no laughter, no joy, the day a person dies, we begin to tell that person’s story.... It’s been laid out before us, with its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows, its successes and its failures. It’s like a book, not yet closed, and yet it’s finished. Suddenly, it’s been thrown open now for all to read, a story that his mother and father have chosen to share with all of you, a story of many parents who tell our children, ‘Stay away from this. Don’t go here. Don’t do that.” Not because they’re being restrictive, but because they’re being careful for you, for all of you. Words of caution are sometimes heard by our children as words of prohibition. We just hunger for you to be safe. You may not listen to us hundreds of times, and you’ll be just fine, but it’s that one time, that tragic time, that brings us here today."

We might think, we whose children have grown up, that we're beyond such worries now.  But we're not.  Not because our grown-up children might think to try such a game, but because we all know someone who falls into the age group that seems to find the siren call of the choking game so very irresistible.  Oh, we might not know that person well... but we know him.  Or her.  The day after Jonathan died, a 14-year-old girl from the same area tried the same thing - she's in hospital now, and I have no idea of her condition.  But as a parent, I can imagine her parents' condition... they are probably wondering what they could have done to prevent this.  And they probably had absolutely no idea that their daughter was even trying this game.

Please, please, talk about this.  Please know, and tell people that you know, that there is a very dangerous game out there, that our children ARE playing that game, and that we need to find the words to talk to them about it before it's too late. It's important for our children to understand that even if they don't play this game themselves, if they know someone who DOES, they HAVE TO TELL SOMEONE. We have to make it safe for them to tell someone.

And please take a few minutes when you've read this to say a prayer for Jonathan and for his family.  Jonathan's friends will be at his memorial service, and at his funeral, together with their own parents. They will mourn, together with Jonathan's family, a life that ended much too soon. The death of one more child from this game, even ONE SINGLE CHILD, is a death too many. We must make ourselves aware of the things that frighten us, and find the words to talk about them.Tonight, my words are inchoate prayers, because honestly, I really don't have words that make any sense of this for me, and I cannot even begin to imagine how his parents feel. I know how my friend feels - I hear the pain in her voice but can do nothing for her except to tell you about this.Please pray for Jonathan. Pray for his parents and siblings, his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even his own nieces and nephews, who will never know this uncle of theirs who loved science and drumming.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Kol Nidre in New York

I was visiting New York City in the latter part of the High Holidays from my home in Nova Scotia and found myself there for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. I contacted several synagogues, and did a little internet research to see whether I could find one in which I might feel at home for these holiest days of our year and was delighted to receive a kind message advising that I would be most welcome to share Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur with a Manhattan congregation.

On Friday evening, Kol Nidre, I took the subway from my hotel to the hall where services were being held, the synagogue itself being rather small for High Holiday attendance. I was warmly welcomed by two women from the congregation and felt quite at home.  The Chazzan’s chanting was utterly sublime, a great gift to any congregation. Her great prayerfulness and passion added much to the words.

I was pleased to see what seemed a substantial number of people attending, including young families, whose Judaism was obviously important enough to them to make the effort to share Kol Nidre with even small children.  The rabbi's sermon was about our desire to be well-remembered, which resonated particularly with me, as the very subject had been much on my mind in recent weeks.  He was a good speaker, and I found myself often in agreement with what he said.

During the sermon, though, a small boy in the congregation became a little fussy, as small boys sometimes do. His mother took him outside, soothed him, and came back in some minutes later. Unfortunately, he still wasn’t tremendously content, and at a particular point in the sermon (timed almost exactly to the moment when the rabbi spoke about what made people remember us), he was fussy again. The congregation, for the most part, seemed amused by this, and in sympathy with the parents. I didn’t notice that anybody was bothered – except for the rabbi.

Even from where I sat, I could see the looks he’d been darting at this young family (parents and 2 small sons). Apparently, the little boy’s fuss was an affront to the rabbi, and he left the pulpit to walk across the stage, and waggled his fingers at the family as if they were unwelcome guests at a party. “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable if…?” he said. There was no reply. Then, after an incredulous moment, the young mother said, disbelieving, “Are you… asking us to leave?” “Well,” said the rabbi. “I think we’d all be more comfortable if you took the children out.”

The hall was still. The young couple, mortified, humiliated, and certainly hurt by this stunningly inappropriate behaviour from a rabbi (of all people) on Kol Nidre (of all days) gathered their children and left. I sat in my seat, shocked. The rabbi returned to the pulpit and simply picked up his sermon where he’d left off. That was enough to shake me out of my inaction. I got up and left.

When I went outside the hall, the couple were there with their sons, both visibly upset. I approached them and said that although this wasn’t my synagogue – I was a visitor, after all – I felt that someone should apologise for their ill-treatment, and on this most holy day, of all days. I told them – truthfully – that this would not have happened in my synagogue. Children sometimes make noise. We all know this. In fact, I'm generally tremendously bothered by disruptive children in a synagogue, yet even I was not in the least annoyed by these children.

Far from feeling like the welcoming place I had expected, the rabbi’s action suddenly made it feel as if I had entered an exclusive enclave, meant for only a certain few, of a certain type. And clearly, not my type – because in that rabbi’s shoes, I would have applauded the efforts of this young family to inculcate some love of Judaism in their children, to teach them how very important it is for all Jews to come on these days. Everybody has a need to atone, and every Jew ought to be welcome at any synagogue to express prayers of atonement. That any rabbi would make this couple feel so unwelcome was wrong – I wonder if his own expressions on Yom Kippur addressed the events of Kol Nidre.

When I left the service on Friday night, I headed back for the subway, where I cried all the way back to West 40th Street.  I got to the hotel room I was sharing with friends, and when I began to tell them what had happened, I got upset all over again.  I'm still upset.  And I'm angry.  I feel powerless, because there's so little I could do on that night, and there is so little I can do now (I have written to the Board of Directors of the synagogue and to the rabbi as well, though I don't know if  either of them will grace me with a response.)

And on Saturday, Yom Kippur, my prayers were private, because I just couldn't go back there.